© 1999 Michael S. Hyatt
Investigative journalism has become an art form in modern society. Reporters investigate every possible issue, from the cleanliness of retail grocery chains to the intimate details of the president's sex life. They ask all kinds of questions -- hard questions that the rest of us would like to ask but are either too polite to do so or too slow on our feet.
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Such is not the case when it comes to the year 2000 computer problem. From most of the reports I've read -- and I review some 50 a day -- reporters seem content to accept the statements of government officials, public utilities, and big business without further inquiry. When asked about their Y2K progress, representatives from these organizations often offer vague generalities about how hard they are working on the problem, coupled with an unsubstantiated assurance that they will finish on time.
Unfortunately, the press too often leaves it at that. No follow-up questions. No contradictory evidence. And none of the usual skepticism. Instead, like a deer caught in the proverbial headlights, they offer a blank stare and record the statements as if they were scientific fact. By the time this information makes its way to the public, the Pollyannic view that there is nothing to worry about is reinforced. Thus, consumers are not being motivated to take the steps necessary to protect themselves or their loved ones. Worse, they have been lulled into a false sense of security, believing that someone else is taking care of the problem for them. Meanwhile, the days continue to slip by and the deadline looms, just 98 days away.
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Why isn't the press more aggressive? I have to believe it is simply because they are not conversant about technology in general or Y2K in particular. When talking with technologically-savvy spin doctors, they feel outgunned and unsure about where to go. Under the press of other deadlines, they have not had the opportunity to educate themselves on this important topic.
As a remedy, I would like to propose seven questions that reporters should use whenever they are told by any organization that all is well and they are on track to get their Y2K project finished on time. This list is not intended to be exhaustive and certainly many other questions should be asked, depending upon the answers given. Nevertheless, it is a start. It is also a list savvy consumers can use as they confront officials about Y2K.
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1. "How many computer systems do you have in your inventory?" An inventory and assessment is the first phase of any Y2K project. According to most experts, it accounts for about seven percent of the total project. If a spokesperson can't answer this question off the top of his head, the reporter must assume that the organization in question has not yet completed this phase or is not serious about their Y2K work. If that's true, then it still has 93 percent of the job ahead of it -- an impossible job for any organization in the days remaining. It is also important to ask if this number includes embedded chip systems.
2. "How many of these systems do you consider to be mission-critical?" Organizations have given up trying to get everything fixed. Everyone is now engaged in a process of triage, attempting to identify which systems must work in order for the organization to fulfill its primary mission. An inability to answer this question reveals that the organization has not prioritized its work and is putting its primary mission at risk by not doing so. At this late date, any organization trying to fix everything runs the risk of not finishing the truly important systems.
3. "What criteria did you use to determine which systems were mission-critical and which ones were not?" The problem here is that some organizations will inevitably exclude systems that their customers and constituents consider mission-critical. For example, let's say that my medium-sized business buys pre-printed checks from a specific supplier. However, these checks are ancillary to the supplier's core business of distributing office supplies. As an executive of a publicly-held corporation, I need to know that checks aren't on the list of mission-critical systems, so that I can make plans to secure an alternative source. Why? Because issuing checks to pay our vendors and employees is mission-critical for my company.
4. "How many of your mission-critical systems are currently Y2K-ready?" What we don't need are more vague generalities and wishful thinking. We need information that is specific, measurable, and verifiable. If the spokesperson answers with a specific number, the reporter should ask if these systems have been independently certified. If not, does the organization plan to utilize a third-party to verify the readiness of their systems. If not, do they simply expect us to take their word for it? As Ronald Reagan suggested, our posture needs to be one of "trust but verify." Once the reporter gets a number, he should periodically follow-up and begin charting the company's progress. This is where reporters would do well to take a page out of Congressman Steve Horn's playbook and begin issuing "report cards" on the progress of critical local providers (e.g., utility companies, big business, etc.). If these organizations won't voluntarily disclose their progress, perhaps public embarrassment will motivate them.
5. "What are your critical Y2K milestones for each of your major systems?" What the public should know is when a given organization plans to (a) finish code repair, (b) begin (or conclude) testing, and (c) put the compliant system back into production. These specific dates should be noted and the reporter should schedule follow-up interviews to see if, in fact, the organization is on track or falling behind. If the organization is unwilling to share this information, the reporter must ask why. In the absence of this information, the public must assume the organization does not have critical milestones and therefore does not have a substantive Y2K project under way.
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6. "Have you identified, contacted, and heard back from your critical vendors and other suppliers?" It's not enough for an organization to get its own systems ready. In the kind of interdependent, interconnected world we live in, a critical, non-compliant supplier could bring an organization to its knees. For example, if a reporter is talking to a coal-burning electric utility, he should realize that the plant is obviously dependent upon tons of daily coal shipments. No coal, no power. The reporter should be asking, "What assurances have you received from your primary coal provider?" "What about the railroad system that delivers the coal?" "What kinds of specific information are you requiring from your vendors?" (Many organizations are not seeking specific information; they are simply writing the letters in order to mitigate the likelihood of lawsuits. They are trying to create the illusion that they are doing "due diligence" rather than trying to motivate and insist upon compliance.) Again, the more specificity the reporter can garner, the better.
7. "Do you have written contingency plans?" Here's reality: the computer code is broken. Not all of it will get fixed. There will be disruptions. As a result, business continuity plans are essential. Failure to make contingency plans is both irresponsible and reckless. For these plans to be credible, they must be written. And in the case of critical infrastructure providers, these plans should be made available to the public. If the organization does not yet have a written plan, it is reasonable to ask when it will be done. Again, the reporter should note the date and follow-up.
In summary, one of the important functions the press serves in a free society is to provide accountability. This is especially true when it comes to those organizations that provide the goods and services we depend upon -- not only for our creature comforts -- but our raw survival. With Y2K, the press should assume that every system is guilty until proven innocent. If the press won't ask the tough questions, who will?